I think a lot about writing.
I think about the process of creation. I think about what causes writers to get bogged down. I think about what makes writers want to write.
But most importantly, I think a lot about what makes writing good.
I think about these things in part because it is my nature as an obsessively analytical person.
If you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality test, I am an INTJ-- introverted, intuitive, thinking, judging.
Unless you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs test those words may not mean quite what you think, but simply put I'm a system builder. I analyze. I seek root causes. And I am ruthlessly practical.
Some people have said that the mantra of the INTJ is simply this: "Does it work?"
Despite my analytical side, I find myself most strongly motivated by an artistic impulse, a desire to transcend thought and float on the breeze like tufts of fluffy milkweed.
It is this combination of analytical and creative which compelled me to develop software for writers.
But the purpose of today's article is not to talk about me or PieceWorx Writing Studio.
In my study of writing and what makes for good writing, there is one big insight I want to share with you today. It is the single most important part of any great writing.
It stands out above all the other qualities and characteristics.
If you wish to be a great writer, this one thing is the most important for you to pursue and to perfect. It's more important than grammar and spelling. It's more important than finding your voice. It's even more important than a riveting plot line. In fact, this one quality is the point and purpose of all those other things.
Simply put, this one important quality is clarity.
There is no other quality more important for good writing than clarity.
So why is clarity such a big deal?
On the one hand, it seems kind of obvious. If I read something and afterward all I feel is confused, then it wasn't good writing.
There are many reasons a person might write: to communicate an idea, to report on events, to share feelings, to entertain, to enlighten, to record terms of a contract.
All of these are good reasons for writing and each of them requires that I communicate with clarity.
Now I might choose to be more artful if I'm writing to share feelings or entertain and I might avoid artistic flair if I'm writing a legal contract, but regardless of my reason for writing, it has never been to obfuscate or confuse.
Having said that, I'm certain people have written with that motive in mind. I'm sure there are people who want to confuse.
For example, a company might present me with a rental agreement. In order to get me to sign something without reading, they begin the agreement with all sorts of confusing language in hopes I'll give up and sign without reading.
On the other hand, that could burn them later if I decided to take them to court. So, most companies do try to write their agreements with great clarity and with lots of boring legalese in the hope that most people won't read the fine print.
Even while a company (some companies, not PieceWorx) may try to bore me or confuse me, they still make an effort to be very clear because it protects them in court.
But odds are, if you're reading this, that you don't write legal documents. You are interested in more creative types of writing.
Clarity is no less important in creative writing than in legal documents.
And In order to write clearly, you must know what you want to say.
Sometimes, the creative writing process requires first figuring out what you have to say.
Too many writers fail to understand the difference between discovering what they have to say and saying it.
A first draft is often where you figure out what it is you have to say. Revision is where you rip out the boring and inconsistent junk, the byproducts of your Lewis & Clark journey into your subject matter.
A first draft is like a prototype. It's where you figure things out and work out the bugs.
The best writers--just as the best speakers or the best software developers--all imbue their work with clarity. But books, speeches or software rarely start out with clarity.
As a writer, you will develop a process which works best for you. Some writers form brief outlines in their heads. They know how they want their characters to evolve and where they are going to end up.
Author Joseph Finder writes on his blog that he is one who outlines. He points out that John Grisham sometimes writes a 50-page outline and Robert Ludlum once told him that his outlines were often as long as 100 or 150 pages! But Finder also mentions Lee Child, repeated #1 NY Times bestselling author, who never outlines.
Finder remains convinced that even Lee Child outlines in his head.
If you are going to write with clarity, you must have some idea of what you want to say. The twists and turns of getting to that may vary, but in the end you have to get there.
I believe ALL good writers go through this same process of clarifying their thoughts so that their writing will be clear. It's just that there are many ways to do this. For one it is a long and detailed outline, for another he works entirely in his own head.
Still other writers may use the first draft to figure out what they want to say, then over multiple revisions, they refine the message. Some chapters will be replaced entirely because, in the end, they just didn't support the final message.
Alright, I can hear you thinking.
You're thinking, "But what about all that high-brow literary fiction which doesn't make any sense? Why isn't clarity important there?"
Yes, some of us may think of literary fiction as writing that is purposely unclear. While there is much debate on the line between commercial and literary fiction, I think we can agree that fanciful prose would be more associated with literary fiction.
But good literary fiction is still clear even though it might demand more of the reader. It often deals with more complex or subtle concepts and emotions. But this is why literary fiction requires even more clarity from the writer in order to avoid bogging down in its own subtlety.
On the far end of the writing spectrum, far beyond literary writing, are some of the clearest writings available, legal documents. They are also some of the most difficult to process and understand as I have already mentioned above.
Good clarity does not automatically imply that a work is easy to read or to digest. It just means that the thoughts and ideas conveyed are consistent and specific so that, even if some effort is required, the reader could reach an understanding of what the writer is trying to say.
In creative writing, the best pieces will be both clear and accessible.
Many writers believe that writing is all about self-expression and the enjoyment of the writing process. This is certainly important, but many make the mistake of believing that their writing is inherently valuable simply because it is their own unique expression.
I think many sculptors and painters have the same idea. And I won't argue with this. I support creativity in all of its forms and stages of evolution.
But if you are content to splatter words on a page without ever seeking to grow and improve, what's the point? You may as well play XBOX all day or watch soap operas to pass the time.
There is virtue in growing as an artist, in having the humility to recognize that your first efforts are most certainly not your best efforts.
Do not settle for a first draft where your ideas are still muddled and incomplete. Nurture and refine those ideas through revision the way you would nurture a child into an exceptional adult.
Finally, I will leave you with this: clear writing takes courage.
A great deal of bad and confusing writing is the result of timidity or fear.
You may be reluctant to commit to a point of view because, in the back of your mind, you feel that it's not really you.
Or perhaps you can already think of the counterarguments. You can hear the critics blasting you for your crazy ideas.
That's OK. If you're writing fiction, being controversial is far better than being boring.
Just be clear about it.